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Tweeters and twitter: a creativity debate

A few weeks ago, the Twitter algorithm fairy threw a discussion about creativity into my feed. I have a natural aversion to putting my hand into this kind of hornets' nest, but on this occasion I couldn't resist. The discussion that was playing out reflects the evidence that creativity is something teachers care about and see it as a skill to be valued in education, and yet it is still something misunderstood and misappropriated.

It went something like this...

A primary school teacher had posted to Twitter a picture of an art display in her classroom. See a snippet of the picture below. The display showed pictures of birds the children had painted in watercolours and was captioned with a comment to praise her class for their work.

Not so, said Twitter. The birds are all identical: how is this going to develop creativity in children? Wrong, came the counter-argument: children in primary school need to be fluent in skills before they can attempt to be creative. Independent artwork is a waste of effective teaching time. Imagine the frustration, they said, of trying to achieve something without being skilled enough to realise what was in their heads. Mastery of skills must come first: to break the rules, they first need to understand the rules.

I should say at this point that I have deep sympathy for the teacher. Offering fair judgment on the quality of a lesson in a twenty minute drop-in observation is tricky: judging a teacher’s methods from one picture is near impossible. The birds, it has to be said, were lovely and her praise for the children was warm and positive.

The 'creativity tomorrow' argument is common, and there is an apparent logic to it. Yes, skills are important for any kind of creative work. These skills are best learnt when taught by a teacher. Follow this reasoning and we arrive at the idea that better skills are likely to produce better artists.

It is in this last point that lies the problem. This argument is based on the false assumption that creativity is a product. It’s the beautifully polished piece that is valued as learning, not the silent or messy parts: thinking, planning, mistakes. In many ways, this is symptomatic of the culture in education that prizes attainment over achievement. When product is valued over process, true creativity is stifled. You might get better artwork but not necessarily better artists.

As much of the research on creativity suggests (see the writing of Anna Craft, Margaret Boden, Ken Robinson and others), creativity isn’t an end product: it is a process, a way of learning. Yes, having something to show for it at the end gives the work purpose, but it is the journey that gives it value. The assumption that teaching skills alone is the route to producing better artists is false. It won’t, just in the same way that teaching grammar and sentence types by rote might make better writing, but it won’t necessarily produce confident, independent and imaginative writers. Trust me, I have taught little else over the last five years.

Creativity does not lie in the end product: it is in the making of decisions, choices and, yes, mistakes that help creativity to flourish. As Ken Robinson writes about in Out of Our Minds, artists, writers, dancers, scientists, scultpters and anyone else engaging with creative enquiry, it is the process that refines the work. It is this realisation that needs to be acknowledged in our instutions of learning.  'Creativity tommorow' needs to be replaced with 'creativity always'. Learners need to be involved in decision making and they need to be trusted to apply their skills independently, with a guiding adult on hand to support them when and how they need it.

So, our beautiful, identically painted tweeters could have been (and hopefully were) given wings and the children encouraged to use the skills they had learnt about colour, applying paint, sketching and the rest to create their own artworks based on birds. True, it's very possible their independent work might not hve been quite as good as if they had followed their teacher’s instructions step by step: but being given the time to think (and, yes, suffer frustration) like an artist, they will have learnt something subtle but valuable from the process. 

You may not be able to break the rules if you don't know them; but equally you can't break the rules if you don't know how they can be broken or even why you would want to. Creative people thrive on risk-taking and experimentation. It requires time, opportunity, motivation and a supportive environment where you have help to turn to if you need it. It is these prerequisites that may be lacking. There has to be a place for this kind of learning in our education system.

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